Wandering Cheapo: Reappraising Andorra La Vella

Posted in: Spain


The winding streets of Andorra La Vella's Old Town. Photos by Alex Robertson Textor.
The winding streets of Andorra La Vella's Old Town. Photos by Alex Robertson Textor.

Andorra La Vella, the capital of Andorra, may be Western Europe’s most maligned capital. A huge duty-free shopping hub, it tends to be written off as an outdoor mall only good for short shopping adventures.

Its commercial bluster may indeed shock those emerging from a weeklong mountain journey through the Pyrenees. And in fact, some of its commercial business is a bit depressing. Shops selling discounted tobacco, perfume, and jewelry are everywhere. There are also sinister militia shops hawking surveillance devices, riot gear, bb guns, and odd objects expressly designed to hide things—like dummy soup cans that screw apart to reveal a hidden chamber. Are these things even legal?

Let’s table that question for a minute and fight the conventional wisdom regarding the Andorran capital by focusing on its downright interesting attributes.

Looking at Andorra

Andorra's pleasing, dated bar decor.

Andorra’s pleasingly dated bar decor.

The language on the streets is the gorgeous hybrid tongue of Catalan. It’s framed dramatically by stunning jagged peaks that appear to sprout behind every building. It’s got a romantic if very tiny old town and loads of interesting, modern stone architecture. In many ways, it is reminiscent of a medium-sized Swiss city. This is the case even aesthetically, down to the faded, pleasingly dated store signage and bar interiors that pop up here and there.

Beyond shopping, true tourism draws in the capital itself are few. Just outside of Andorra La Vella in the town of Escaldes-Engordany is the enormous Caldea thermal baths complex. Our Cheapo tip: obtain a discounted nighttime admission for €25, a savings of €8 off the standard admission price.

One standout site in the city is the Casa de la Vall, the 16th-century stone house that serves as the seat of government. It’s delightful to consider that such a beautiful small house could serve as a national parliament.

Andorra's cute parliament building.

Andorra’s cute Casa de la Vall.

Andorra’s governmental balancing act

Andorra is, truth by told, a bit of an anomaly. It’s in charge of its own affairs but maintains some vestigial attachments to France and Spain. Officially, it is a co-principality, and its two “co-princes” are the French head of state and the Bishop of Urgell, who represents Spain.

(Lest you imagine that France and Spain run the show, know that executive power is the domain of the Andorran government, not the co-princes.) The postage system is operated by its two much larger neighbors, who dutifully produce Andorran stamps; defense, also, is delegated to the giants on either side.

Andorra is not a part of the European Union. It also remains outside of Schengen, the EU’s customs union that de facto blankets most of the other European microstates. On the main road through Andorra there are large mountainside immigration stations—a downright rarity in today’s Western Europe. (Many bus shuttles, however, including the one occupied by your loyal correspondent, are dismissed with a wave at the border crossings. What a disappointment!)

French and Spanish mailboxes side by side.

French and Spanish mailboxes side by side.

With neither an airport nor a railway network, Andorra certainly sits off the beaten path. Unlike the other Western European microstates, it isn’t quick to get to by road, either. Andorra is a three to three-and-a-half hour bus journey from both Barcelona and Toulouse.

By way of contrast, Monaco is smack dab in the middle of the Côte d’Azur, Liechtenstein is as close as an hour and a quarter from Zurich, San Marino is a stone’s throw from Rimini, and the Vatican is encircled by Rome. Andorra’s sheer distance makes actually touching down on the ground feel a little bit more like an accomplishment.

Andorra La Vella Hotel Tip

Budget bed fans should check out the clean, quiet, and very affordable Hotel Sant Jordi in Andorra La Vella, where double rooms booked online can be nabbed for as little as €40.

About the author

Alex Robertson Textor

About the author: Alex Robertson Textor is a London-based travel writer and editor. He has written for Rough Guides, the New York Times, and Public Books, among other publications; he also guided the tablet magazine Travel by Handstand to two SATW Foundation Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism awards. With Pam Mandel, he writes copy and generates ideas as White Shoe Travel Content. He is on Twitter as @textorian and maintains his own blog, www.textorian.com.

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